Thursday, 31 May 2012

My Month in Books, Part Two (May)

           9. Agnes Owens — Like Birds in the Wilderness

This 86-year-old Scottish grandmother is thrilling! Her debut novel(la) arrived in 1987 when she was in her early sixties (how many writers start their careers at sixty? there’s hope for you unpublished middle-aged hacks yet) and made absolutely no impact on any readers or reviewers, despite being published in hardcover from Fourth Estate. My beef with the realist school of writing is there are usually an orgy of poetical metaphors and worthy descriptions to endure—attempts to lift the ordinary into the hallowed world of the literary, to immortalise in words. Owens does no such thing. Her stories pass like the occasional Volvo S40 on a deserted Highland road. She has no need for the something-big-and-meaningful or the important-encapsulation-of-a-universal-emotion moments that make realist fiction the dreary bore it usually is. This novel concerns an alcoholic bricklayer who gets and loses a girlfriend and his job. And it soars as high as the title suggests.

10. William H. Gass — The Tunnel

The first 200 pages of this novel carry the reader aloft on flowing waves of sumptuous, musical prose: sentences so serpentine and silky, so alliteratively slinky, one’s only response is to ride these dreamy, masterful currents of polished perfection with near spiritual ecstasy. After the first 200 pages (or thereabouts) the novel takes muckier, knotty, horror-packed digressions and balances these with frequent flare-ups of the musical magical waves of Gass pleasure. The book alternates between these extremes for its duration, creating what Colin Pie has called as a “lovely schizophrenia.” Gass’s novel is one the most exhilarating explorations of a vile mind in existence. His use of discombobulating typographical techniques, deceptive comical limericks, utterly immersive internal monologues, the Henry James-strength meaningless and unending sentence, heartbreaking childhood reflections of increasing desperation, blackly humorous misanthropic assaults, pitiful domestic dialogues, and carnal fantasies immerses us in Kohler’s hopeless, heartless realm. This novel is bloated and beautiful. You will loathe it, love it, hurl it across the room, chortle disgracefully, read it compulsively for days and days, wearily skim-read hundreds of pages, spill yoghurt on its spine. One thing is clear: you need The Tunnel in your life. No burrowing out of this one.

11. Raymond Queneau — The Blue Flowers

Queneau’s novels and poetry have found their way into English and have been kept in print by a Reich of mostly American, and several British presses, among them Dalkey Archive, Atlas Press, NYRB Classics, Oneworld Classics, New Directions, Carcanet, Sun and Moon Press, University of Illinois Press, University of Nebraska Press, and Penguin Classics. There are (at last count) twenty books of Queneau’s work in English—a couple out-of-print or expensive—but largely all readily available for your reading delectation. This is both a pleasure and a curse. Twelve of Queneau’s eighteen novels are available, along with six collections of his poetry and two miscellaneous story and curio collections. This begs the question: is there too much Queneau in print?

For a largely unknown (to English readers) “avant-garde” writer, twenty seems like an undue surfeit. There are some writers whose best works are only translated while the duds remain in the original language, meaning we only read the best of their work and clamour for more, unaware the other material doesn’t bear translating as it will only allow us to cast critical light on our beloved hero(es). This is certainly true of Raymond. For The Blue Flowers is a turkey, no doubt about it. (Except so it seems for an absolutely rapturous Italian readership—the Italian translation was done by their national bard Italo Calvino). I wanted this tiresome absurdist rubbish to end more than I wanted Patch Adams to end and my slow Robin Williams-induced death to follow.

12. Nicola Barker — Clear: A Transparent Novel

A novel written in three months during (and after) David Blaine’s infamous Christ-in-a-Perspex-box stunt in London. Barker’s novel is the most entertaining account of this memorable public spectacle that united Londoners in the act of throwing eggs at a man with mental health problems. Clear: A Transparent Novel is an ebullient comic novel written in such bouncy, jack-in-a-box prose, you want to crawl into those pages and live with these cast of cranky oddballs and relive 2003 all over again. (Maybe not the last bit—I was a depressed teenager in 2003. But I still want to live with the oddballs in that rent-free house, please). Barker’s fiction moved almost entirely into the comic realm after this novel (Behindlings was written in the same style with more coastal bleakness), but retains its distinctive power, despite the eccentricities and relentless hiccupping slapstick. I have nothing else to say about this novel so this sentence is redundant. And this one. Me too. (And me!)

13. Nicholas Mosley — Accident

Colin Pie is back with a brand new haircut. Do you like the lime-green streaks? My hairdresser reassured me it was “the exciting thing” (he made the inverted comma sign with his fingers to signify its misleading faddishness) in corporate Britain today. Alan Sugar apparently went for a Mohican last week, proving once again how out of date and redundant his empire is and how the BBC are basically his main employer. Some men can’t be tempted out the boardroom with a cattle prod. It’s sad. But for now I like my blonde and lime-green locks, despite the rumours that eyeball-to-navel piercings will be hot in June. Here’s hoping that doesn’t happen—I wear glasses and have diabetes.

1. MJ Nicholls Would Like. To say that he read this novel himself. He’s pleased because he only reads two novels per year, usually written by Dr. Seuss or his wife Nurse Seuss (retro sexism). He admired the narrative’s ‘shorthand’ style, written to flit from thought-to-thought without any clumsy prose padding, but he found this style occasionally repetitive and clunky, especially the overuse of similes (three sometimes in the same paragraph) and liberal use of poetic adjectives. The dialogue too was awkwardly tagged and seemed to hang off the page—the characters (women especially) appeared extremely blank and lifeless. The afterword makes a good case for this novel’s innovation but you get the feeling Dalkey have been overly kind to Nicholas Mosley.

2. Colin Pie’s Fashion Tips. For men: Vaseline all the chest hairs on the left side of your body so they’re pointing upwards. Repeat this on your right side, pointing downwards. This is real turn-on for girls with mental health problems. For women: Headscarves aren’t only for the Queen or East European immigrants pretending they’re still in their villages. The tighter the better. Tie a polka-dotted scarf around your head so your eyes bulge slightly from their sockets. This a real turn-on for male cartoonists. Be sure to catch my new three-part series on clothes made from bits of old cabbage found in bins.

3. Finally. This novel was turned into a film in 1967 with Dirk Bogarde as an Oxford philosophy professor. Yes, really. The novel feels like a sixties relic: crusty upper-middle-class intellectuals chastising the younger generation for their loose morals but totally taking part in all the bed-hopping larks themselves . . . the younger the better! Lettuce works too, in hats.

14. Amélie Nothomb — Loving Sabotage

This Belgian who writes in French, was born in Japan and partly raised in China, writes fantastical novellas usually about precocious children who encounter self-imposed or external hardships in the nasty old world. I read this one for respite during The Tunnel but the choppy sentences and frustratingly twee intellectual humour made me less eager to pick it up. Nothomb claims the story (about a precocious seven-year-old member of Mao’s army who falls in love with a steely Chinese girl) is completely true, which seeing the character speaks at a level of erudition most adults fail to achieve without speedball cocktails, is a somewhat outrageous boast. The novel coasts along on its impish humour and unusual approach to history but lacks the flair for tongue-in-cheek melodrama in books like The Character of Rain (narrated by a three-year-old) and The Book of Proper Names. Also, the cover gives me a headache.

15. Louis-Ferdinand Céline — Rigadoon

Céline completed this final instalment in his trilogy a day before his death . . . so much for that happy retirement . . . this book (and apparently all of his novels) have a fragmented nouveau roman approach: breaking the text into unpunctuated sentences connected via ellipses . . . like this . . . and this . . . to convey the flow of thoughts and speech . . . and to do away with that bothersome process of having to . . . you know . . . polish really good sentences . . . if only Updike had done this! . . . oh he also uses exclamation points more than is healthy! . . . because Céline was not healthy! . . . he was possibly a crazy man! . . . and this book certainly doesn’t help dispel that notion! . . . I should have started with Journey to the End of the Night . . . but this was a mordantly funny and digressive . . . obviously . . . story of how the author fled to Denmark following the war . . . during which he was a Nazi sympathiser . . . as you do . . . and the more I write like this, the easier it seems to be . . . so I am less convinced Céline was a great artist . . . I suppose I should read Journey first . . . did you know if you space you ellipses . . . the way they do in novels . . . that counts as three separate words on Microsoft Word count!? . . . ooh an interrobang . . . a little tip there for students struggling to make up the word count . . . this review was sponsored by Bob’s Periods . . . dotty since 1987!

16. Alison Lurie —The Truth About Lorin Jones

Trounced by my inability to absolutely love every page of Gravity’s Rainbow like I was foolishly expecting (but secretly pleased to be contrary all the same) I decided to read something appropriately oppositional instead, filched from a friend’s mother’s sister’s library. And you can’t get less reliable than a friend’s mother’s sister’s library. Or in this case, you can. This novel boasts more hateful feminists than a backstage at a Le Tigre concert and more oleaginous male chauvinists than backstage at a Garth Brooks concert. The protagonist Polly is trying to write a book on mysterious painter (see title) Lorin Jones (ha, fooled you!) who she believes was ruined by patriarchal attitudes. She later learns this wasn’t the case and she was the absolute bitch. That’s your novel. Quite cunning and quite clever, workwomanlike on the prose level. But better than the first sixty-nine pages of Gravity’s Rainbow.

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